Mus­cle Man

We can’t re­call ever see­ing a pro­file on perennial tour­ing car pri­va­teer Bill O’Brien. AMC caught up with O’Brien in Can­berra, of course, to hear his story.

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

We can’t re­call ever see­ing a pro­file on perennial tour­ing car pri­va­teer Bill O’Brien. AMC caught up with O’Brien in Can­berra, of course, to hear the story of his ev­er­last­ing Bathurst at­tacks in pow­der blue.

The pow­der blue liv­ery. The red EVERLAST sig­nage in up­per case type. The fre­quent “from Can­berra” ref­er­ences by com­men­ta­tors. The well-used VL ‘Walkin­shaw’ Com­modore and XD Fal­con. The bruis­ing early 1990s Reid Park en­counter that elim­i­nated and an­gered Dicky John­son...

Such are the things that leap to mind when perennial pri­va­teer Bill O’Brien’s name pops up.

O’Brien was one of the first week­end war­riors picked for is­sue #88’s Top 25 Bathurst pri­va­teers fea­ture which listed the Great Race’s most suc­cess­ful, colour­ful, mem­o­rable and pro­lific part-timers. The short blurb ac­com­pa­ny­ing Bill’s en­try read: “The Moun­tain was ha­bit­u­ally cruel to the likes of Bill O’Brien and yet he kept com­ing back for more.”

That he did. O’Brien’s 18 Bathurst 1000 cam­paigns be­tween 1979 and 1995 brought a mixed bag of fine fin­ishes, flings with fa­mous faces, fluc­tu­at­ing for­tunes, fra­cas and fright­en­ing crashes.

‘Bill O’Brien’ may be a name well known to long-time Bathurst devo­tees, but it’s also one they know lit­tle about be­yond the afore­men­tioned ba­sics – which is just how he likes it. Fun­nily enough, it’s a name that popped up re­cently when two of his old Fords were auc­tioned as part of the Har­ris col­lec­tion of Group C Bathurst Fal­cons.

A self-made man, the like­able O’Brien went mo­tor rac­ing on his own terms. There was no ego and re­ally no need for pub­lic­ity out­side the ACT, a com­bi­na­tion that led to a low pro­file. He rarely spoke to the press, ex­cept to his lo­cal Can­berra me­dia.

As a driver he ad­mits he was merely com­pe­tent, but he had the money to em­ploy qual­ity co-driv­ers and race­car pre­par­ers. In­deed, O’Brien raced along­side some of the greats – Kevin Bartlett, Bob Mor­ris, Al­lan Mof­fat, Larry Perkins and his great mate, 1975 Bathurst win­ner Brian Samp­son.

The pick­ings may have been slim most years, yet there were also three top 10 fin­ishes (the prime pri­va­teer team goal) in the ul­tra­com­pet­i­tive two-decade pe­riod he jour­neyed to Mount Panorama. Those cam­paigns soon be­came an Oc­to­ber tra­di­tion for him – a fam­ily af­fair where the O’Briens were joined by a bunch of loyal friends who each year sup­ported the small team’s ef­forts.

For the first time – pos­si­bly be­cause no one has ever asked be­fore – the straight-shoot­ing O’Brien opens up about his rac­ing ca­reer. He ex­plains how the sig­na­ture ‘Everlast Blue’ came to be and how a true blue Ford man be­came a Com­modore camper via a fl ing with a slinky Sky­line.

Two or­ange coupes

In

1977 O’Brien bought a clean road-go­ing XB Fal­con coupe and built it up to Group C spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Ini­tially he gave it to gun driver Kevin Bartlett to de­velop and race.

“We took it to Sandown for the Hang Ten 400 with Bartlett and De­nis O’Brien (no re­la­tion) from Wagga Wagga en­tered for the race. I didn’t even have a rac­ing li­cence at that stage!”

Only Bartlett would drive the Fal­con that day which was soon re­tired due to en­gine mal­adies. As Bartlett was com­mit­ted to run­ning at Bathurst with Bob Forbes there was no en­try for the or­ange XB for the Moun­tain clas­sic. In any case, Bartlett and O’Brien soon re­alised they were at con­flict­ing stages of their re­spec­tive ca­reers.

“Bartlett had dif­fer­ent ideas to what I had in go­ing rac­ing, but we parted as friends,” says O’Brien.

Into 1978 and O’Brien did a few ATCC rounds, and paired with fel­low Fal­con racer Garry Willm­ing­ton at Oran Park’s marathon 222-lap Roth­mans 500 for a re­spectable sev­enth place in the 40-car field.

The Can­ber­ran then headed to Bathurst with re­spected sin­gle-seater racer Ray Win­ter as co­driver. Co­in­ci­den­tally, Win­ter had made a name driv­ing Bartlett’s old “Yel­low Sub­ma­rine” Mil­dren open-wheeler. Un­for­tu­nately, the duo blew an en­gine in prac­tice on the Moun­tain and with­out a spare was un­able to qual­ify for the race.

Chas­tened, O’Brien was de­ter­mined never to be un­der­pre­pared again and went hunt­ing for a bet­ter race­car.

Garry Willm­ing­ton had been in­volved with a guy named Norm G. Smith who owned mas­sage par­lours in West­ern Syd­ney. He had bought the ex-Al­lan Mof­fat Rac­ing spare XC light­weight coupe and Willm­ing­ton built it up to race. Willm­ing­ton then fell out with Smith, who put a cou­ple of Ki­wis, Leo Leonard and Gary Sprague, in the car for Bathurst ’78, be­fore putting it on the mar­ket. O’Brien quickly snapped it up.

“It had the best of ev­ery­thing. Lots of stuff, in­clud­ing five mo­tors, gear­boxes and diffs. I paid $35,000 for the lot. I had more gear than Dick John­son or Mur­ray Carter who were al­ways bor­row­ing stuff. Ex-Mof­fat en­gine guru Peter Mol­loy built my en­gines.”

The Everlast team en­tered se­lected rounds of the 1979 ATCC with a best fin­ish of fourth at the Lake­side round. That re­sult stands as O’Brien’s best ever solo race fin­ish. For Bathurst he again teamed up with Win­ters, but, like his fel­low Fal­con rac­ers, suc­cumbed to the in­evitable blown Cleve­land af­ter 62 laps.

“We were fight­ing with (en­gine) com­pres­sion. The fu­els of the day wouldn’t take it and the stan­dard con­rods weren’t up to it. We must have blown up five or six en­gines un­til we were even­tu­ally per­mit­ted to use Car­rillo rods”

The Fal­con XC raced on into the first half of 1980 with Mol­loy and for­mer Goss me­chanic Grant O’Neill pre­par­ing the car. O’Brien then un­wit­tingly fast-tracked him­self into the big league.

De­fend­ing ATCC cham­pion Bob Mor­ris was un­happy driv­ing the sec­ond Craven Mild Com­modore and left the team midyear. Mol­loy set up a deal where Ford pro­vided a new XD Fal­con shell, Mor­ris brought his Chan­nel 7 and Bre­ville spon­sor­ship, and O’Brien’s would trans­plant the XC me­chan­i­cals into the XD and pre­pare it for Bathurst.

“Mor­ris was a quick driver,” Bill O’Brien ex­plains. “About two sec­onds a lap faster than me. I learnt a lot. He helped me be­come a quicker driver. I also cross-en­tered Al­lan Mof­fat that year. We got on well. He hadn’t driven my car un­til the race and didn’t like the set up. He was slower than me. I only got half-a-lap be­fore the en­gine blew.”

De­spite the strong show­ing – qual­i­fy­ing sixth and run­ning as the top Fal­con af­ter Dick John­son’s rock in­ci­dent – it was a bit­ter­sweet af­fair for O’Brien.

“The orig­i­nal deal was that af­ter the race the car was to be mine. Af­ter all, it was log­booked in my name and I pre­pared it. But af­ter the race the car was ‘given’ (by Ford) to Mor­ris, he charged me for the car and I paid it. I ac­cepted this as I didn’t want a bad name in the in­dus­try.”

The XD Fal­con in its dis­tinc­tive blue hue would be O’Brien’s faith­ful work­horse up un­til the end of the Group C era, cam­paigned at se­lected ATCC rounds and an­other four Bathursts. Pre­pared in his Can­berra work­shop with me­chan­ics O’Neill and Chris Cullen, O’Brien wisely re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to up­grade to XE spec­i­fi­ca­tion with its trou­ble­some Watt’s link­age rear coil-sus­pen­sion.

“My ego wasn’t there,” is O’Brien’s sage re­sponse. “I was quite happy to be there as a pri­va­teer. We couldn’t beat the fac­tory teams.”

O’Brien em­ployed two co-driv­ers dur­ing this time with very dif­fer­ent re­sults. In 1981 and ’84 it was Syd­neysider Gary Cooke and in 1982-83 it was for­mer Bathurst win­ner, Brian Samp­son.

“Cooke was slower than me and he was hard on the me­chan­i­cals. Both races he broke the en­gine. He wasn’t a smooth driver. In con­trast, Brian Samp­son was a dream to work with. I was al­ways faster than him but he was good at set­ting up the car and look­ing af­ter it in the race. He never bent it.”

For the record O’Brien and ‘Sambo’ fin­ished 20th in 1982 and 19th in 1983 af­ter var­i­ous mi­nor prob­lems dur­ing the race.

Top left: A fit-look­ing Bill O’Brien today. Be­low left: O’Brien’s tour­ing car story be­gins with Sandown in ’77 with Kevin Bartlett be­hind the wheel of his or­ange hard­top. Be­low: Bill’s shot from his Can­berra work­shop when he tran­si­tioned from the XB coupe to light­weight Mof­fat-built XC.

Main: Hav­ing made his Bathurst de­but a year ear­lier, Bill found him­self driv­ing with for­mer win­ners Mor­ris and Mof­fat in 1980. Sub­se­quent cam­paigns (above) were lower key af­fairs.

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